Africans’ tales of acceptance in Ireland are heartening

Column: There was no suggestion of racism on the part of Irish officialdom, just of a distinct lack of sympathy for the plight of the individual


It was soon apparent that the women had no intention of saying only what they thought their audience might like to hear. When I had raised this as a concern on the way in from Dún Laoghaire, my companion, Jane, a good friend and work colleague, shook her head: “No, I think they’ll grab the opportunity to tell their stories.” And so they did.

The opportunity Jane spoke of was provided by the Irish section of Awepa (Association of European Parliamentarians With Africa) which had invited a number of African women living in Ireland to Leinster House to relate some of their experiences since taking up residency here. Jane and I had been asked along as observers.

More on another occasion about the sterling work of Awepa’s Irish section, but just to say it is among the most active in Europe, thanks in part to funding from Irish Aid that has allowed it to employ a full-time staff member, Simon Murtagh.

It was a small, relaxed gathering, sympathetically chaired by the head of Irish Awepa, Independent TD Maureen O’Sullivan. There were seven African women in attendance – from Ghana, Nigeria, Congo, Somalia, Zimbabwe and Uganda – and a number of TDs. Simon and I were the only males present.

Helpful garda
Josephine, a young mother of three from Ghana, began by telling us how a neighbour used to regularly throw soiled nappies into her back garden: “No matter how often I asked her to stop, she would just laugh and keep doing it.” Josephine tried ringing the local Garda­ station, but despite being repeatedly assured an officer would visit her house, none ever appeared.

Eventually, in tears, she went to the station and explained the situation to an off-duty inspector. He couldn’t have been more helpful. “Right, we’ll soon sort this out,” he said. Within an hour he had spoken to the neighbour, and there was no more dumping of nappies over the fence.

The gardaí­ fared very well at the meeting, although a bit of training on cultural differences wouldn’t go amiss. The women recited instances of borderline racist attitudes by a few officers, but there was certainly no suggestion of institutionalised racism, or anything close to that. Moreover, it is a great source of comfort to the women that members of the Irish police force, unlike their African counterparts, can be so readily held accountable.

Unfortunately, other institutions of the State did not fare quite so well as the Garda. Again there was no suggestion of racism on the part of Irish officialdom, just of a distinct lack of sympathy for the plight of the individual.

Labyrinthine path
We heard how frustrating it is for a new arrival to try to steer a path through the labyrinthine Irish welfare system, and deal with its inconsistencies and its failures to communicate; the heartbreak of separation from children left behind for economic reasons in a country of origin, and the legal problems in trying to bring them to Ireland; and the non-recognition of perfectly legitimate academic qualifications, and how this impacts on employment prospects (hard enough for English speakers, but doubly difficult for those from a former French colony, such as the woman from Congo).

On employment, Annette from Uganda recommended that new arrivals should become involved in volunteering, not just for its own sake, but to fill the inevitable gaps in their CVs. And, just as importantly, to meet people and make connections within their new community. Jane, a strong advocate of volunteering, nearly shook her head off in agreement.

If the apparatus of the State got a mixed review, the Irish people certainly didn’t. The women could not have been more enthusiastic in their praise.

Most of them live in working-class areas of Dublin and Cork. And, with the odd exception such as the nappy-thrower or a barely civil shopkeeper, the locals have taken their new neighbours to their hearts. It says much for the Irish working class that, in the middle of a recession, when scapegoats are traditionally sought, those who are suffering most are welcoming African families into their midst.

Neighbourhood ‘sisters’
This acceptance is nowhere better reflected than in how happy and settled the women’s children are in their schools. Aziza, who championed civil rights for women in Somalia until she was forced to flee under threat of death, told how her children had made numerous friends among their classmates in Cork. And, as if as a bonus, “ . . . they no longer hear gunfire during lessons”. She spoke too of neighbours who, in the absence of her wider family, have become “like sisters” to her.

It would be foolish to read too much into the experiences of only seven people, all living in urban areas. Doubtless, in less enlightened parts of the country other recent arrivals have been the victims of racism. Still, one would need to be deeply cynical not to feel heartened.

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